picture alliance/dpa | Jens Kalaene

The impact of CORRECTIV’s investigative report on the secret right-wing meeting in Potsdam Enormous Bombshell

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Reactions to the disclosures came from every social milieu. Businesspeople published joint advertisements in favor of strong democracy. Associations of judges, athletes, and the Chancellor himself all expressed their views. But above all, ordinary people demonstrated over a period of weeks in cities large and small, sometimes hundreds of thousands of them, but often just a few hundred in towns that for years had not witnessed any demonstrations on their main squares. Across Germany more than 1000 such protests, attended by a total of some 3.5 million people, were tallied. In every case, the point was to draw a line in the sand against right-wing extremism. The enormous impact made by this public display of resoluteness most likely unleashed the ensuing reactions and repercussions.

Since then, the political debate on boundary-setting vis-à-vis the AfD as well as the possible banning of that party has become noticeably more heated. To some extent, the counterreactions have been quite fierce, although for the most part they culminated in failed attempts to attack the investigative report in court. Nevertheless, some baseless narratives did catch on in right-wing and The year 2024 began with a bombshell dropped on society that overwhelmed CORRECTIV’S investigations team, but did much more than that. For months, millions of people in Germany took a stand in favor of democracy and against right-wing extremism. The occasion for this movement was the publication of a document entitled Secret Plan against Germany, an investigative report on the meeting near Potsdam that brought together far-right radicals, high-ranking AfD politicians, and the donors who sustain them.

Reactions to the disclosures came from every social milieu. Businesspeople published joint advertisements in favor of strong democracy. Associations of judges, athletes, and the Chancellor himself all expressed their views. But above all, ordinary people demonstrated over a period of weeks in cities large and small, sometimes hundreds of thousands of them, but often just a few hundred in towns that for years had not witnessed any demonstrations on their main squares. Far-right echo chambers, ones that charged CORRECTIV with having worked for the government or the Constitutional Protection Office or simply claimed that it was spreading lies.

Political effect

Before its publication we were quite sure that the study would have a political effect. The mere fact that high-ranking AfD party officials were discussing a »master plan« in collusion with the right-wing radical Martin Sellner could hardly fail to have some consequences for the AfD. Nor could people ignore the participation of the entrepreneur Hans-Christian Limmer, who at the time was part-owner of the burger chain »Hans im Glück« as well as a partner in another regional chain, »Pottsalat,« which delivers fresh salads. Thus, it was no surprise that, a few days after the meeting had become widely known, AfD chief Alice Weidel fired her close confidant Roland Hartwig, who had delivered his own speech at the meeting and had shown himself to be impressed by Sellner’s arguments. Neither was it surprising that the restaurant chains wanted nothing more to do with their partner Limmer who had helped to draw up the original invitation list for the meeting.
Still, throughout the history of the Federal Republic the publication of an investigative report written by journalists never had evoked political reactions of the kind that followed January 10. Those responses stunned not only the editorial staff but society as a whole.

»Strategies devised in the party’s political support network were imported into the AfD.«

It was not news that the notorious far-right figure Martin Sellner, joined by the AfD’s political support culture, had begun testing the proposition that millions of people, including “unassimilated” citizens, should be forced out of this country. Nor was it news that there were enthusiastic supporters of such ideas in the AfD. At the meeting in the country hotel outside of Potsdam, elements coalesced that constituted a recognizable threat to Germany’s open society. Here, ideology, politics, and potential big donors came together and talked aggressively about a »master plan.« And this happened at a time when the AfD had a realistic chance to come to power in a few federal states. Strategies devised in the party’s political support network were imported into the AfD as part of the master plan. 

In this context, the publication of the report was evidently a trigger. Across broad segments of the population there was considerable discontent about the rise of a party that was becoming ever more radical. The meeting showed how real the prospects were that that the AfD might implement plans that had been forged in organizations of its supportive milieus. The chair of the AfD’s state parliamentary delegation in Saxony-Anhalt commented that it should be made as »unattractive as possible« for »this clientele« (i.e., German residents with a migration background, ed.) to live in that state. And AfD member Roland Hartwig signaled that he might transmit ideas from the meeting to the party’s national directorate.

The counterreaction of attendees from the AfD and its support networks was marked by nervousness. Was that precisely because the report disrupted the development of a political strategy? In books they had written, right-winger Martin Sellner and the AfD politician and top candidate for the EU election, Maximilian Krah, already had given currency to the term »remigration«. This was a »loaded« word that populists would understand to mean a policy of forcing out of Germany millions of people. And in other speeches, Sellner has talked about »unassimilated« citizens. He has called for passing »customized« laws that would entice certain people to leave Germany voluntarily. There is no other way to understand this than as a scheme to ratchet up pressure on some people to leave the country. He also speaks of a place in North Africa »to which one could move two million people.«

Keyword: RemigrationAs early as the end of World War Two, the concept of »remigration« was already in use. But at that time, it meant the return to Germany of people who had fled Nazi barbarism. Currently, in the aftermath of the Potsdam meeting, the notion has been revived by the far right as shorthand for a plan of mass expulsion of asylum-seekers, foreigners who have a legal right to stay here, unassimilated citizens, and political opponents. It was selected as the »euphemism of the year« in 2023 because of its adoption as a far-right fighting word and Orwellian doublespeak meant to conceal and gloss over the real intent behind it. Moreover, the word is also linked to the radical right’s “great replacement” conspiracy theory. It implies that we should reject multicultural “repopulation” in favor of the vision of an ethnically purified Volk. The AfD claims that remigration is simply a matter of applying measures and incentives consistent with principles of the basic legal order and of current law that would return foreigners to their home countries who would be legally required to leave Germany in any case. (eds.)

A concept with racist overtones is to be »normalized«

Last year the AfD began using the expression »remigration« often and aggressively. Suddenly, AfD deputies started to invoke the term more frequently than ever in their parliamentary speeches and at party conventions, sometimes adding the adjective »millionfold.« Here, one realizes that, although the concept initially carried racist overtones, the point was to normalize it in political debate so that people would gradually grow accustomed to the idea. In this context, ideas of expulsion are so openly expressed that far-right speakers now enjoy enough wiggle room that they don’t actually have to name the intended groups afterward. In the wake of the publication of CORREKTIV’s investigation, it is no longer as easy as before to create a niche for »remigration« in the political debate, although inside the AfD it may continue to have its effect. Nevertheless, even one of France’s leading conservative politicians, Marine Le Pen, has made it clear that »remigration« has no place in the European family of right-wing parties. It is obvious that the whole idea awakens bad memories of France’s German neighbor – not without reason – and is a bridge too far even for other right-wing populist parties in Europe. Weidel had to fly to Paris where she tried to explain to Le Pen over lunch that the meeting had been portrayed in totally exaggerated ways.
Besides those troubles, the party leadership is no longer able to conceal the strength of the linkage between radical-right organizations and big donors. Once the CORREKTIV report had appeared, other media started to publish articles about meetings attended by Sellner or post stories about the number of staffers working for AfD deputies who had roots in far-right organizations.

»Ideology should be carried over into the organizational structure«

The Potsdam meeting also made it apparent that a radical-right coalition was quite self-consciously waiting for an opportunity to alter the institutions of the German state. The organizer of the meeting, Gernot Mörig, talked explicitly about forming a committee that would flesh out the master plan from »ethical, legal, and logistic« standpoints. In that way, ideology was to be carried over into the organizational structure of the German state. Once the meeting and its purpose had been brought to light, the report’s disclosures forced many institutions, businesses, and interest groups to take clear positions. The debate about legal proceedings to ban the AfD, cut back its party finances, or put it under closer surveillance by the Constitutional Protection Office has once again grown quite heated. By the same token, observers have begun to look harder at the radical organizations that regard the AfD as their parliamentary arm and at the financial backers of such far-right circles.
There was also a wake-up call at the beginning of the year reminding us to take pro-democracy initiatives seriously. The latter warned that populist ideas could be put into practice at the local level through behavior that was de facto discriminatory, or that the AfD could take advantage of administrative powers to push through far-reaching changes that could curtail social diversity. Nor should we fail to notice efforts to delegitimize journalism by means of far-fetched narratives. The AfD’s attempt to transform a judicial proceeding on laws governing the press into an opportunity to settle scores with journalists was legally baseless and for the most part failed in the courts. However, the attempt did catch on somewhat in blogs and media with a right-wing orientation. Here, we see a trend: publicly calling into question journalists’ credibility and then amplifying that uncertainty in right-wing extremist media echo chambers. 

A tremendous experience of self-understanding

The clarity that emerged at the beginning of the year was a tremendous experience, one in which German society came to a fuller understanding of itself. Many people demonstrated for the first time in their lives. In smaller cities in which the press sometimes preferred reporting on Nazi marches, people who wanted to defend an open society found one another. In this country, the majority renewed acquaintance with itself. Abroad, the demonstrations took many observers by surprise and were portrayed as strong indicators of this country’s openness. Positions clearly taken, especially during the first few post-publication weeks, revealed who would stand up for a liberal, democratic culture and who evidently wanted to transgress its limits. The task of journalists is to describe what is. As far as democracy is concerned, we will have to wait and see how the clarity that characterized the beginning of the year might become a permanent feature.  

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